QUESTION: What is the city of Burlington doing about the growing number of panhandlers who’ve made themselves at home along the city’s busiest thoroughfares? Doesn’t the city have rules on the books that allow it to regulate this form of solicitation?
ANSWER: The recent resurgence of panhandling in Burlington does beg the question of whether city officials are actually doing anything to curb this activity.
The answer to this conundrum, according to the city’s higher ups, is that there isn’t a whole lot the city can do at the moment to address the proliferation of panhandling.
Although Burlington’s city council imposed a categorical ban on all forms of roadside solicitation in 2008, subsequent developments have enabled everyone from newspaper hawkers to itinerant beggars to reclaim their former patches of turf in the community.
The city’s prohibition began to erode in 2009 when North Carolina’s General Assembly granted newspaper sales a specific exemption from local restrictions on solicitation. This state-level measure didn’t confer any benefits on panhandlers, who remained persona non grata within Burlington’s municipal limits. But their prospects would eventually brighten as well thanks to a pair of landmark decisions that have since been propounded by the nation’s preeminent court.
In 2015, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling against the Arizona hamlet of Gilbert in which the justices demanded a strict standard of content neutrality for local limits on signage and other forms of public expression. The court heard another case that same year about panhandling restrictions in Worcester, Massachusetts, and it ultimately bumped the matter back down to the lower court with instructions to resolve it using the same standard it had applied in the case against Gilbert.
The takeaway from these two rulings was certainly not lost on Burlington’s municipal leaders, who substantially gutted their own restrictions on panhandling when they overhauled the city’s code of ordinances in 2018.
The city’s leaders had a chance to reflect on this regulatory rollback just three weeks ago when Morgan Lasater, the city’s community engagement manager, presented a plan to address homelessness in Burlington’s downtown business district. During her pitch to the council, Lasater also touched on the affiliated issue of roadside panhandling.
“Our current panhandling ordinance does present some challenges for us,” she told the city’s elected officials during a city council meeting on July 19. “The Supreme Court has ruled it as free speech. So we are working within a lot of requirements at the state and federal levels.”
Lasater went on to assure the council that the city still has a prohibition in place against aggressive panhandling to deal with some of the more egregious behavior of people who are begging for change along area roadways.
This ordinance, which dates back to the city’s recodification in 2018, explicitly prohibits beggars and solicitors from “confronting someone in a way that would cause a reasonable person to fear bodily harm.” It also forbids them from “touching someone without his or her consent,” “using obscene or abusive language toward someone while attempting to panhandle,” and from comporting themselves in other ways that are spelled out in the ordinance. The ordinance also makes it a misdemeanor to violate these provisions, punishable by a fine of up to $50 or no more than seven days in jail.
In a subsequent interview with The Alamance News, Lasater acknowledged that the city’s police force has tried to balance the enforcement of this ordinance with other more pressing priorities it faces. She added that the police department may consequently appear somewhat restrained in its dealings with panhandlers who don’t pose an immediate threat to public safety.
Brian Long, Burlington’s chief of police, has put things quite similarly in his own, official response to the complaints that his agency receives about panhandling.
“Our mission is public safety,” Long stressed in a prepared statement that he has passed on to Lasater. “Calls for service to the Burlington Police Department to address panhandling are frequent. The area’s most often identified for such activities are along the interstate corridor at the exit ramps and near large box stores (Walmart). [In response to these complaints], officers now observe the individuals to determine if they are interrupting traffic flow and creating danger to themselves or others.”
Long added that his officers are ultimately constrained in their actions by the Constitutional protections that have now been extended to panhandling.
Meanwhile, Lasater assured the newspaper that the city’s seemingly laissez-faire approach to this issue doesn’t mean residents should be reluctant to share their legitimate concerns about panhandling with the police.
“I don’t want it to seem like we’re not doing anything,” the city’s community engagement manager insisted. “We are. But we’re very limited in what we can do, and it isn’t just us. We have the same issues across the nation.
“But, if you see someone panhandling and you think it’s unsafe,” she added, “please call our non-emergency line at 336-229-3500.”
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